Since being enlisted by Basketball New Zealand and Head Coach Paul Henare, Gavin Cross has started his third year as the Tall Blacks Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coach. His job is to help mould our elite players into basketball powerhouses who jump higher, move faster, and shoot with more accuracy - using the principles of S&C. The team calls this S&C programme 'Strategy 5'.
Strategy 5's mission is to identify players within a wider talent pool of about 50 potential Tall Blacks, and working with them on S&C, mindfulness, and other high performance elements that are essential to compete at the international level. Cross says it's essential if New Zealand is to succeed as an international basketball nation, especially now that our teams play in the FIBA Asia Zone.
"We've known for at least three years that FIBA was always going to extend our international calendar in 2017 by adding New Zealand to the Asia Zone. From November, the Tall Blacks will play home and away series regularly, coming together almost every three months. And we need to step up to this opportunity now, or we risk being left behind.
"Traditionally the Tall Blacks have always competed well through our starting five or six, but then there's a slight drop off in performance. So our bench hasn't quite been providing as much output as other teams, and we've struggled for depth," says Cross.
"In the 2016 Olympic Qualifiers, the Tall Blacks didn't score enough in the paint. So what do we do about that? Well, while we can't do much about the height of our players, we can improve their toughness, their ability to leap and get off into rebounds, and to shoot the ball better. We want to be able to make our big men stronger, and improve the fitness and speed of our guards. So those are things that we identified as areas that we needed to improve, specifically in my role as a strength and conditioning and performance coach."
Ultimately the goal for the Tall Blacks is to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, so there's not much time to build, yet the Kiwis are working fast. The biggest challenge in his role is that the Tall Blacks has so many players spending most of the year playing overseas.
Cross believes New Zealand players can confidently compete against other big international teams, with players who are generally ensconced in highly funded, innovative and world-leading basketball camps. While some might argue that's impossible without high performance funding, Cross believes the Tall Blacks are controlling what they can and working with the tools they have, which includes cooperation and communication with other professional clubs where many of our Tall Blacks play their domestic seasons.
"The players tend to be great, keen to be involved and take on our advice, but it can be hard to get buy in from coaches of teams that are overseas, particularly in the U.S. where our guys are at college. College coaches are notoriously difficult to get on with if you're an overseas coach or programme," says Cross.
The Tall Blacks are not paid, instead they make sacrifices for team and country, spending time way from their clubs and families, motivated purely through their passion for the black singlet and representing their country on the world stage. Yet they have responsibilities to other teams. It's no secret that the majority of our elite players make their livings from professional clubs, or are supported through their College Scholarships in the United States. Cross says the Tall Blacks have always respected the relationship with other clubs and Basketball New Zealand has invested in that.
One of those investments was sending Cross to meet with a number of our U.S. based Tall Blacks and rising talent, to help build those relationships. They also sent Cross to the Oklahoma City Thunder to research their programmes and consider how their best practice can be applied to Strategy 5
"We've got a good relationship with the Thunder's strength and conditioning coach, the physio and the athletic trainer. But more importantly the way that the Thunder have actually come aboard and said, 'We want to help you guys to get better' is just brilliant," says Cross.
"I very much think they've adopted New Zealand and they love the Kiwi culture. Steven Adams had a big influence in Oklahoma, his personality, his work ethic, his sense of humour, the way that he plays the game. They've been very impressed and that's helped. The fact that they've allowed us to go over and see what they do, I think it's a very good start. They also recognise the fact that anybody who's a basketball fan in New Zealand, if OKC isn't their number one team, it's for sure their number two team. And I think they appreciate that."
On the back of the visiting the OKC Thunder, Cross also met with the coaches at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Washington, and University of Oregon. Two up and coming Kiwi talents are Matt Freeman, playing the University of Oklahoma, and Sam Timmins who plays at the University of Washington, recently toured China with the NZ Select team and has now debuted as a Tall Blacks with the 'Young Blood' team currently on tour.
"It's important to build those relationships while the players are out of the Tall Blacks camp, and talking to the likes of Matt and Sam to explain what our expectations are going to be, and explaining to their coaches what our training expectations are going to be for those players. It's also helpful to find out what those coaches expect while their players are in their offseason, which is when we tend to get these players in the Tall Blacks camps - so we can work with their goals as well.
"It's important for the players too. They can get a little homesick overseas, they need a bit of Kiwi support. They also need to know where they fit into the national programme. In the end the feedback from everybody was fantastic and they were very appreciative of the fact that we were actually touching base."
In recent year New Zealand's reputation in the U.S has grown significantly. There are now over 50 Kiwi men and over 70 Kiwi women playing on scholarship at U.S. colleges. Cross says our reputation is for players who are smart, hardworking and team players.
"A member of the staff at the University of Oklahoma, who had come from University of Virginia, said that Jack Salt was the hardest training guy he'd ever seen. Matt was getting the same kind of rapport with his coach. Sam Timmins is a hard worker. You know Tai Webster's a really hard worker. So all of these guys are getting really good looks from their coaches. Respect for New Zealand players is high. And we're well known for punching above our weight in terms of our basketballing success."
Cross says players understand and cooperate to ensure the Tall Blacks goals are accounted for in their personal programmes through Strategy 5. Generally players are willing to go the extra mile for their country, after all many have also been nurtured through national age-group teams and have been incorporated into Tall Blacks camps already, and more importantly incorporated into the legendary Tall Blacks culture, which is not to be underestimated.
"The culture of the Tall Blacks really is amazing. Certainly coming into any team that's coached by Paul Henare is going to have a very strong work ethic and a strong cultural component. He stresses the need that it's all in. That's from day one of camp, you sort of know that you're there to work. He's an exceptionally good but hard taskmaster. But actually being able to be in a culture where you learn about the Haka, you learn who wrote it, why it was written, who it was written for. Everything that's associated with the black singlet. Allumni players always come in and talk as well, and so the first time you're in a closed room and the team does a Haka in front of you, with you as part of it, or even facing you, it's just the most spine tingling moment, it's amazing. And that continues all the way through. That black singlet, is a special thing.
"I think Tai Webster last year said that what he values above all else is playing for his country. And you could see it in the way that he played. And that rubs on the other guys, on the younger guys coming through and Tai will often talk about how he was inspired by the older guys who went in ahead of him. And I guess it helps when you have Pero Cameron, who is a legend, and Paul Henare, who's a legend. But although I try, I literally cannot describe how special it is to be part of that culture."
So while Cross' biggest challenge might be the dispersion of the team, perhaps his biggest asset is that famous culture. Is it that love of the Tall Blacks, one that is wholly embraced by the players and staff, what will see Strategy 5 succeed. Cross says he can't really build players' S&C on a tour, instead the work needs to be put in beforehand. On tour he helps maintain those programmes, working within a physically demanding schedule of international games and practices.
"It's hard on tour and part of what my job is on tour is 'balance'. We've got a very arduous training schedule, we're often playing four or five games in four or five days. So how much do you train on top of that? We want to prevent injuries, but we also want to keep the guys strong, motivated, able to play. You know that's the most important part of my job, is to keep the players on court really, which is where Strategy 5 comes in."
As with all good plans, Cross has set goals and expectations for himself and Strategy 5, that he hopes to achieve within four years.
"Ultimately, we want all 50 players in that wider training squad with the ability to fit in and out of the Tall Blacks model, and be at a higher standard than we are now. Players S&C results are measured, analysed, and we're using science to help us, it's not by pure luck and athleticism which we've kind of relied on in the past.
"I feel like we're very much on track. We've got some excellent athletes. The motivation of the athletes is excellent too. We've got some exceptional coaches in the country at the moment, and we've got some exceptional relationships with our players and coaches overseas, Basketball New Zealand is doing everything they can to support and develop the Tall Blacks programme. So the model is there, the framework is there. It's up to us now to implement it.
"Our first major goal will be to perform well at the FIBA Asia Cup this year, and then next year we've got the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, where we want a medal. Then we want the Tall Blacks qualifying for the FIBA World Cup, then the Olympics in 2020."
It's clear that Cross feels it's a great time to be part of the Tall Blacks and Basketball New Zealand's work to develop the game, with so much opportunity and a feeling that New Zealand basketball is poised for greater things.
"Basketball is about to take another step forward in terms of a high performance space. I believe it's going to overtake what they're doing in the NFL in the next year or two, and when you look at organisations like the Spurs and the Thunder, who are going above and beyond, if we can replicate their model to a certain degree, I think it's massively exciting for us because of our close relationship with US programmes, and there's no reason why we can't take that, adapt it, and eventually have a myriad of players also playing in the WNBA and NBA, as well as the Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns.
"As I said we've got both of the Tai's coming through, Webster and Wynyard. You've got Sam Timmins, you've got Matt Freeman, you've got Jack Salt, you've got Isaac Fotu, he's probably good enough to be playing in the NBA at the moment. You've got Corey Webster. So there are a handful of guys who are good enough. We just have to do our job a little bit better," says Cross.
"The Tall Blacks is becoming a team of tough, uncompromising, highly skilled, speedy athletes, we're going to be one fierce team on the world stage - you wait and see."